European World Cup Playoffs: Four Things To Watch

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By then end of the day Tuesday, the World Cup participants from Europe will be decided. Here are the four things you to be looking out for.

Ronaldo v. Zlatan II

World football has made a lot of this battle and with good reason – Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two behemoths of the game. And on Tuesday one of them will find himself condemned to a summer of watching the 2014 World Cup on the couch. The edge right now is in Ronnie’s favor, after his header was the decisive goal in Portugal’s 1-0 victory last Friday in Lisbon.

Most seem to think that’s that and Portugal has run away with this thing. But that’s a mistake that Ibra has pounced on countless times throughout his career. Give him the excuse and he’ll do it again. Especially when buoyed by the home crowd in Solna and especially when his side aren’t supposed to win.

Which they’re not. Portugal are hands-down the better side, which is precisely (and ironically) what has put them in the current predicament of needing to qualify through a play-off. Brace yourself.

Tough Times In France

It’s nice to have France around if for nothing else but a reminder that no matter how bad things are with your national team, they could be a heck of a lot worse. Despite having talent for days, Les Bleus screwed the pooch last week when they dropped the first leg of their playoff to 0-2 at the Ukraine.

To most people the result, while unfortunate, wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially considering the second leg is in Paris. But to the French, it’s curtains, as only 16% of the public (as surveyed in Le Parisien) believe Les Bleus can advance to the 2014 World Cup.

16%? That’s disgraceful.

With that pathetic amount of confidence, perhaps France should lose and end all of the misery that team has caused since their boycott antics back in South Africa 2010. Ask any good Irishman and they you France shouldn’t have had that honor either – but that’s a whole other piece of crepe.

Go On, Iceland!

If you have a heart then you have to support those loveable blondes to the north, Iceland, as they take on Croatia. Strákarnir okkar (Our boys) managed a 0-0 draw in Reykjavik meaning it’s all to play for in Zagreb on Tuesday. While winning away will be an uphill battle for Iceland, Croatia’s previous home form will give the underdogs confidence as the Croats previously lost to Scotland and Belgium during home turf qualifiers.

If Iceland do succeed in winning they will become the least populous country (at 320,000 inhabitants) ever to play at a World Cup. Fascinating stuff.

Not Your Father’s Greece

So long the butt of all stylistic football jokes in Europe, Greece appear to have finally shed their brutally defensive style in favor of flair and goals. Last Friday they were a joy to watch, suffocating the Romanian defense with clever through-balls and inventive play that resulted in three well-worked goals and a 3-1 victory.

The effort marked the first time the Greeks scored more than twice in a competitive game since a 3-1 win over Malta in June 2011. Oh, how they times they are a changing! And while they may fall into a more defensive scheme to preserve the precious lead, don’t be surprised if come June people are using words like “quality” when describing Greece.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit much. But they are a much improved side and worth a watch, if only for a quick bit.

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia